Thailand – A Glimpse Below The Surface

26 Apr 2019

Thailand is a beautiful place. There are grand, dazzling temples and gardens full of exotic flowers.  There are parades and festivals that feature incredible floats of intricate design and colour. The surface of Thailand is so glossy that most people don’t see the fractures that lie beneath.

We talked with a Pioneers worker to find out what he has observed from within the Thai lifestyle and culture …

Honour and Shame

In Thailand, in every aspect of life, there is always a hierarchy. In every family, workplace, or social interaction, someone is higher, and someone is lower. In a family, the father or grandfather will be the highest. In a school, the principal. In the village, it is always the monks who are considered the highest, and children who are the lowest.

Overlaying these social positions is the pervading worldview of honour and shame. You must always seek to honour, and never to bring shame, to the people who are higher than you. In the workplace, or even in the church, it’s not so much what someone says, but who is saying it.

Yet for those with power, shame is a common way to impact those under them. For example, in schools, publicly scolding and shaming children is often the means used to bring correction and ‘encourage’ improvement. Children are labelled “Buffalo” by the teacher, a derogatory term implying they are slow-witted. One of our Pioneers workers experienced this use of shame in his language class, being told by the teacher: “You’re slow, you’re stupid, you’ve got to do better.” Part of the reason why parents and teachers scold children is to make themselves feel better. In order to pass off shame from themselves, they impart it to the child.

The obligation to honour those above you places a huge restriction on social and career opportunities for young Thais, or poorer uneducated people. Thais must always show respect and defer to those who are higher. When one of our Pioneers workers was asked to preach at a Thai service, he asked his much-loved language coach to translate for him and was surprised that his friend had to say no, as there were other translators in the church socially higher.

Fear #1 Sin vs Merit

For Thai Buddhists, every waking minute is a balancing act between fear of the consequences of sin and earning merit to escape what they deserve.

Buddhism teaches that sin brings both shame and bad karma. There’s a lot of Buddhist laws, more than the bible has in Leviticus! They include being empathetic with people around you by not wearing bold colours, not being boisterous and loud, or not slurping your food!  And there is no killing of life, including animals. And yet, Thai’s wear bold colours, are boisterous and eat meat. They break their own laws all the time, so they are well aware of their sinful nature.  Consequently, there is a constant fear of building bad karma, and pressure to get rid of it.

It’s a daily burden to counterbalance sin with merit. Many people are up at 6 am, ready to give alms to the monks as they walk by. There are items in local shops that you can purchase to earn merit. You can try to live respectfully or help people for merit too. In one way it is all good living, but ultimately their motivation is to make payments for their sin.  In Buddhism, your lot in life is because of the karma from your past life. The merit you are trying to earn now is all for the sake of your next life.  It’s so oppressive trying to keep up.  How much sin have you done and how much merit have you earnt? No-one knows for certain. The problem is, as one old man expressed, as fast as you earn merit to pay back sin, you sin even more. 

Fear #2 Spirits and Curses

The other pervading fear is the activity of the evil spirits all around them. When bad things happen, the general belief is that it’s a curse from a spirit. A lot of effort must go into appeasing these spirits to keep them happy. There are large spirit houses in parks and public spaces, and shrines in most homes. Thais believe that this is where the spirits live, and they present various offerings to the spirits so that they don’t bring curses into the family home.

Thais make offerings at spirit houses, which might be a plate of food, or an open bottle of Fanta with a straw in it ready for the spirit to drink. On one trip into a rural Thai village, a Pioneers team noticed many houses had tied a red shirt to their front fence. They learnt that a boy had recently died in that village, and the red shirts were put out as a deterrent to the evil spirit so that it would not come in and curse their family too.

The belief is that if anything negative is going on it’s either bad karma from sin, or it’s because of an evil spirit. Many Christians feel that these two fears are the stronghold in Thailand that is holding back the gospel and keeping people from knowing Christ.

The Power of the Gospel

The gospel has very good news for Thai Buddhists: Jesus has made their merit for them, in full! He has dealt with their sin and shame for all time. The cross of Jesus breaks all curses.  And where they have shamed the creator God and brought Him disgrace, Jesus restores that honour and restores their relationship with God, so that they can be God’s children.

Join us in prayer for the Thai Church:

  • Pray for the creation of authentic Thai worship (not just a translation of English/ western worship) coming from the heart of Thai believers.
  • Pray that the teaching in the churches would not be centred on what Christianity can do for them, but that it would point people to Christ, and glorify him.
  • Pray for culturally relevant churches to be planted in remote villages. Not transplanted versions of the city churches, but simple gatherings that allow people to meet together informally, explore faith, and encourage one another to believe and follow Jesus.

Written by Suzanne North from the reflections of James, a Pioneers worker

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